This is an excerpt from a longer essay, if anyone would like to read the full text please email me.
We spew ourselves up, but already underneath laughter can be heard.
– Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
In the chapter ‘On National Culture’ of his 1963 book, The Wretched of the Earth, the Martiniquan author and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argues that within a colonised nation, the artistic output of the native writer evolves through three distinct phases. In the initial phase Fanon suggests, that the writers output reflects his assimilation of the occupuying culture, the literature produced in this period corresponding to concurrent trends and styles in the literature of the colonising country.
In the second phase Fanon suggests that the writer becomes ‘disturbed’ and ‘decides to remember what he is’. The writer attempts to write about his people, but since he is not, as Fanon points out ‘ a part of his people’ (Fanon, 1982:179) he observes the people externally. During this period, the writer attempts to reconstitute himself by incorporating childhood memories and the mythologies of the ‘native’ culture into his work. But the aesthetic tools and techniques he uses are those borrowed from the coloniser. The writer looks to the past for inspiration, unable to fully engage with the ‘now’ of the people. As a result his writing becomes melancolic, a literature of longing. This transitionary phase can be traumatic for the writer, as Fanon suggests,
Sometimes this literature of just-before-the-battle is dominated by humour and by allegory; but often too it is symptomatic of a period of distress and difficulty, where death is experienced, and disgust too. We spew ourselves up, but already underneath laughter can be heard. (Fanon, 1982:179)
As a result of this internal struggle, the writer eventually re-emerges with a deeper nationalistic conviction, as ‘an awakener of the people’, stirring them into action, becoming a spokesperson for the revolution and validating the potency of the national culture by joining with the people in their struggle against the occupying forces. The third phase of the indigenous writer’s artistic evolution, which Fanon calls ‘the fighting phase’, (ibid), is therefore characterised by a revolutionary or national literature.
This essay will focus on this revolutionary impulse as it manifests in Caribbean poetry and attempt to show how innovation in Caribbean poetry reflects this idea of revolution. I will also discuss the work of a selection of Caribbean poets in an effort to show how innovations like Negritude, Surrealism, nation language and Dub poetry are all results of this revolutionary impulse. Using Fanon’s analysis as a framework, I intend to show how innovation in Caribbean poetry cannot be separated from the socio-political history of the region.
The history of the Caribbean thus far, has been a history of flux and mutability, diaspora, exile and colonialisation. Centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in what he mistook for the West ‘Indies’, indigenous Indians - the Tainos, Arawaks and Caribs had transversed the arc of islands that form the Caribbean, from the tip of Florida in the north to Trinidad in the south, at the top of mainland South America. These indigenous societies were destroyed with the coming of the Europeans. And in their wake came millions of African slaves. After the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century, Chinese and East Indian indentured labourers were drafted in to support the colonial economies. This kaleidoscopic array of imported cultures has given the Caribbean its particular, unique character where Europe seems to blend with the ‘new world’.
But this blending has come at some expense. The break up of the colonial empires during the mid 20th century precipitated a period of political and economic instability in the Caribbean. During and after World War two, several thousand West Indian men and women arrived in the UK to help rebuild the British infrastructure. The benefits were mutual.
Writers from the Caribbean, at least those who wished to make a living from writing, have also in most cases been forced to leave the Caribbean for the US or Europe where their chances of having their work published or finding work were greater. This urge to leave has always played an important part in Caribbean ideology.
As the poet and social historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite wrote in the literary journal Bim in 1957,
‘I want to submit that the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility, whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor.’
Whilst in personal conversation he has suggested that a Caribbean person only becomes a Caribbean person when they leave the Caribbean.’ .
During the period immediately after the abolition of slavery precious little, if anything, existed of what can be called Caribbean writing, at least not as we know it today. It must be remembered that at this time, slavery was still a recent memory and the literature of the Caribbean was produced by Europeans, and at least in the British Caribbean - by the English landowners and educated creoles. Although much of this work was set in the Caribbean, it was not a Caribbean literature but what Brathwaite calls a ‘tropical English’ .
Many of the writers who published fiction and poetry during this period were white English, born in the Caribbean, but educated in England and so intrinsically removed from the experience of slavery, and from the life of the African slave that the work they produced for the most part merely used the Caribbean as an exotic backdrop for their stories and poems. Very few were able to give a convincing picture of life in the islands, often attempting, unsuccessfully, to transpose the plantation experience to the English shire whilst using the models of Dryden, Pope and Byron.
During the 1930s and 40s there were a few scattered literary journals, like Bim in Barbados, Kyk-Over-Al in Guyana, Focus in Jamaica and The Beacon in Trinidad which published poetry and prose from local writers. But even at this stage no clear Caribbean character had emerged in poetry. The Beacon for example- considered a controversial left wing journal at the time- published poetry that was very English in character, even if the setting was tropical and sprinklings of dialect were incorporated.
The editors and contributors to the journal were, apart from a few exceptions – one of them being the Marxist philosopher and novelist C.L.R. James - of a minority group of well educated or at least wealthy descendants of ‘near-white’ or Creole land owners. This ‘petit bourgeois’ of early 20th century Trinidad, sought to align themselves with what they thought were the literary trends of the ‘mother country’, producing a poetry which bore pale imitation of the masters of pentameter they sought to emulate. Very little of the poetry collected in these journals was revolutionary enough – either in content, attitude or style – to reach Fanon’s third ‘fighting’ phase of ‘native’ intellectual evolution, remaining set in the first, assimilative phase and what the Black British academic Homi K. Bhabha calls ‘mimicry’.(1994)
Ralph De Boissiere – himself a mixed race middle class Creole- and along with Albert Gomes one of the editors of The Beacon, outlines the problem quite frankly,
They (the whites and ‘near whites’) attached themselves to British culture without becoming cultured. British education was designed to black out negro culture and inculcate a deep sense of one’s inferiority to foreign whites, with whom culture was supposed to originate.
The poetry that The Beacon published is for the most part only of historical interest. The work is flagrantly derivative and neglects the everyday life of Trinidad in favour of an archaic English verse,
The day is up: up rides the sun and we
must out into the sun at sound of horn.
The day is up and some of us must be
dungeoned in offices where webs are born.
For me another task: to stand and see
a maenad wind dancing through a field of corn.
A revolution in Caribbean poetry occurred eventually, when during the 1930s and 40s, ordinary people decided that their voice should be heard and when writers began to integrate the native folk culture and language into their work, to speak for the people.
One of the first recognisable signs of this came via Martiniquan students based in Paris in the thirties who aligned themselves with Andre Breton’s Paris Surrealist Group.
Two distinct black surrealist groups developed around this time. Firstly, there was the group of Martiniquan intellectuals attached to the Sorbonne which included Etienne Léro, René Menil, J.M. Monnerot and Simone Yoyotte. In 1932 they published a single issue of a journal: Légitime Défense, in which they declared their support for communism and surrealist revolution, celebrated Jazz, denounced slavery, acknowledged their African ancestry and celebrated the cultures of the African Diaspora. They also criticised the black bourgeoisie and published surrealist poetry by several members of the group.
Légitime Défense was immediately suppressed by the French authorities who were anxious not to let any copies reach the colonies. The poetry they published in the journal has been criticised for being in the style of the French movement rather than in the colloquial voice of colonised peoples, but, Défense was nevertheless an historic and highly influential document that gave warning of things to come. As the ‘Declaration’ that opens the journal warns,
This little journal is a provisional tool, and if it collapses we shall find others. We are indifferent to the conditions of time and space which, defining us in 1932 as people of the French Caribbean, have consequently established our initial boundaries without in the least limiting our field of action.
Another black surrealist group developed among students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, which included the Guyanese poet Léon Gotran Damas, Leopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal and the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire. This group established their own journal in 1934 entitled L’Etudiant Noir, which like that of the Sorbonne group, was limited to one edition.
It is in this March 1935 issue of the journal that Aimé Césaire first coined the term, ‘Negritude’ as a way re-appropriating and empowering the word ‘negre’ which the group felt held negative connotations. Although Negritude as a concept can be criticised for being essentialist in nature, it would have far reaching influence and become one of the integral ideas of black liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s.
All three members of this second group were exemplary poets. And in 1937 with the publication of his collection, Pigments, the Guyanese poet Léon Damas became the first francophone poet from the colonies to forge a distinctly ‘black’ poetic sensibility that went beyond European literary models. And Aimé Césaire, in a 1939 issue of the literary review Volontés published what would be Negritude’s manifesto and what Andre Breton called ‘nothing less than the greatest lyric monument of our time’ – the long poem Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), from which, this excerpt:
Comme il y a des homes-hyénes et des homes-panthéres, je
serais un home-juif
As there are hyena-men and panther-men, I shall be a Jew-man
a man-from-Harlem-who-does-not-vote) (Césaire, 1995:84-85)
Cahier examines the impact of colonialism on Césaire’s native Martinique.
But while Cahier is undoubtedly experimental in form and controversial in its subject matter and imagery, Césaire’s language is not the creolese of the colonies but that of the black francophone intellectual. In this way, while it qualifies as a revolutionary work – it can be seen as falling short of being a work of ‘Caribbean’ poetry. Surrealism’s influence on Cesaire has also been questioned. But in questioning Cesaire’s Surrealism critics have sought to apply a rigid definition of what surrealism is and as Robin D.G. Kelly argues in Freedom Dreams -The Black Radical Imagination,
‘The question of his surrealism, however, is generally posed only in terms of Andre Breton’s influence on Cesaire. In this view, surrealism is treated as “European thought” and, like Marxism, is considered alien to non-European cultural traditions.’
Surrealism is by nature, notoriously difficult to define. In ‘Andre Breton- What is surrealism’ Franklin Rosemont of the Chicago Surrealist Group offers the following,
Surrealism, a unitary project of total revolution, is above all a method of knowledge and a way of life; it is lived far more than it is written, or written about, or drawn. Surrealism is the most exhilarating adventure of the mind, an unparalleled means of pursuing the fervent quest for freedom and true life beyond the veil of ideological appearances. (Rosemont, 2001:6)
Surrealism and politics are intertwined and cannot be separated. In fact in can be argued that rather than being an artistic or literary movement it is in fact a political one. The French surrealist were staunch ant-colonialists and supported revolutionary movements throughout the world. They saw surrealism as a necessary insurrection against the empires of Europe and drew much of their political and inspiration from the cultures of colonial Africa and the Diaspora. Many so-called surrealist techniques – automatism, bricolage and the use of dreams for example are found in shamanistic and religious practices of indigenous or ‘primitive’ cultures not only in Africa, but in the Americas, Asia and Oceania.
Andre Breton himself has emphasised surrealism affinity with colonised or oppressed nations and with indigenous or ‘primitive’ cultures.
'Surrealism is allied with peoples of colour, first because it has sided with them against all forms of imperialism and white brigandage and second because of the profound affinities between surrealism and primitive thought. Both envision the abolition of the hegemony of the conscious and the everyday, leading to the conquest of revelatory emotion.'
In many ways Surrealism came late to Europe. The revolution of the mind that in the west was called surrealism had been an integral facet of African thought, and one that was brought with the slaves to the Caribbean and the Americas, one which found expression in dance, religious practices and in music. It can also be suggested that Surrealism, like Jazz, and the Science Fiction written by blacks during the Harlem Renaissance was also a way of distancing the past and coming to terms with their state of exile by forging a new, alternative vision of the world.